By now, you’re probably aware of the death of Drakeo The Ruler, who was stabbed in the neck backstage at the Once Upon A Time In LA festival. You might not have been aware of just who Drakeo The Ruler was, or why him performing there was such a big deal. As he himself would put it, it’s because he “is LA hip-hop.” While that might sound like typical rapper self-aggrandizement, in Drakeo’s case, it was uniquely true.
Just check out this piece I wrote nearly four years ago in which I called Drakeo one of the architects of LA’s new underground sound alongside 03 Greedo and Shoreline Mafia. So far, that assessment has borne itself out even despite a series of setbacks that had so far prevented that underground sound from penetrating the mainstream (insomuch as there even is a difference between underground and mainstream in the modern, Spotified era of rap).
While Shoreline Mafia eventually split up, individual members like Fenix Flexin and OhGeesy have made a significant impact with their own solo material. 03 Greedo went to prison in Texas for gun possession, but has since dropped a slew of projects recorded in the months before beginning his sentence. And Drakeo himself spent nearly two years in jail fighting charges of attempted murder without bail but recorded his own project from behind the walls, maintaining his presence on the outside before being released in the transition between Los Angeles District Attorneys after last year’s elections.
He came back with a vengeance, releasing a studio album and two mixtapes in rapid succession within months after his release — a testament to his vaunted prolific work ethic. And while those independently released projects weren’t chart-toppers, it’s in Drakeo’s influence on the LA scene that we can see the most evidence supporting his claim to be the avatar of the city’s new approach to hip-hop.
The slippery, off-kilter cadence that he uses across much of his catalog has been replicated in the elaborate punchlines of West Coast jokers like 1TakeJay, AzChike, BlueBucksClan, and Drakeo’s own protege Remble, while the hometown stop on his recent tour saw a line for the Novo wrapped not just around the block but around nearly the entirety of the LA Live campus, something I hadn’t personally witnessed in any of my own many (many) forays to the area for concerts and Clippers games.
However, his death isn’t just a loss for LA hip-hop — it’s also an indictment of many of our society’s systems, starting with the justice system. There’s no way anyone could have predicted him dying in less than a year after being released but it’s an absolute travesty that anyone could be locked up for most of the last two years of their life before ever being proven guilty of a crime. Life is so short and so precious; there must be alternatives to simply incarcerating people for even being suspected of crimes.
And yes, there are probably a few recriminations to be had for Live Nation, who organized the Once Upon A Time In LA festival. Drakeo’s mother has already begun to pursue legal action against the promoter, citing a lack of security backstage, which anyone who’s ever spent any time in the streets of Los Angeles should have seen the necessity for. As more than one Twitter user put it, that is too many gangs in one place, and certainly not the venue or the time to cut costs by hiring fewer guards. The fact that this could happen demonstrates either unfamiliarity with the acts involved — certainly in line with corporate America’s shallow, profit-driven level of engagement with hip-hop and Black culture — or a callous disregard for their safety. It’s doubly damning that Live Nation is already under fire for its last festival this year, the disastrous Astroworld, where 10 people were killed by a crowd crush, believed to be caused in part by lack of security.
A growing sentiment among the segment of my social network that comments on the goings-on of Los Angeles is that there is “something going on” in the city. In just the past handful of years, the LA area has seen the violent deaths of an inordinately great number of rappers from Nipsey Hussle to Pop Smoke. However, it’s not just something that’s confined to LA — in Dallas, we saw the shooting death of local rapper Mo3, and in Memphis, Young Dolph was also killed. Unfortunately, hip-hop has always been a bellwether of wider trends in society.
That there appears to be a trend of rappers meeting violent ends only says that America still has yet to address the underlying circumstances that cause violence in the communities that produce these rappers, that cause these rappers to produce violent music reflecting their circumstances, and that cause that violence to eventually find them again even as they strive to leave it behind. No one should be living like this, forced to look over their shoulder at home while thousands of fans scramble to hear more horror stories they themselves will never have to experience. All of these rappers, including Drakeo, are the canaries in the coal mine. I wonder if America will stop digging before it’s too late.